Netflix Builds A More Visual, Universal User Experience For TV Apps From The Ground Up

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Netflix is rolling out a new user experience for its TV apps today, which represents the biggest single product update in the company’s history. The update introduces a whole new way for users to browse, search, and discover titles on a wide range of devices, from the Playstation 3 to Xbox 360 to Roku and everything in-between. The whole thing is a lot more visual, and is designed to entice users with more information about shows and movies on the platform, along with the reasons why those are titles have been suggested.

The Evolution Of The TV Experience

Netflix has spent the last several years gradually adding features to its TV apps to drive more engagement and get people watching more movies and TV shows. And, for the most part, it’s been pretty successful doing so: After all, Netflix subscribers watched more than 5 billion hours of video on the service last quarter, and most of that viewing happened on connected TVs.

But the TV experience has a few faults: For one thing, it’s not consistent. The Xbox 360 experience differed from the Roku experience, which differed from the Netflix experience on Samsung Smart TVs or the Sony PlayStation 3. Each platform had a different means of navigation and different features, which led to a bit of confusion for subscribers who watched Netflix on different platforms, based on whichever TV in the home they were at.

Not to mention, the TV experience hadn’t evolved that much from Netflix’s core desktop experience. It was still dominated by portrait-mode DVD box images and often required users to dig down a screen or two to find out more about a certain title and figure out why it might be suggested to them.

Netflix’s new TV apps, which represent the biggest single product update in the company’s history, are designed to be more visual, taking advantage of the increased screen real estate on HDTVs, while also allowing viewers to learn more about titles before clicking through.

Titles are now represented with new, landscape-mode box art and, when selected, the main screen displays three large, rotating images that give more context about what each movie or TV show is about. When it comes to TV shows, that’s true not only for an entire series, but also each individual episode. Each title also has a more concise synopsis and also displays personalized details, such as why it’s recommended, which friends might have watched it, or whether it’s won any awards.

While viewers will have more visual cues on the main page for why they should select one video or another, if they dig down to the title screen they’ll find a longer synopsis. For TV shows, that means individual episode descriptions and a viewing progress bar. The new user experience also universally auto-plays the next episode in a series, which could lead to more season-long binge viewing among subscribers.

The search experience has also been improved, with dynamic results appearing after users type in just one letter. Actors and director info also appears on the same screen as video titles, and enables users to drill down and find more movies and TV shows from those stars.

The new experience will also bring more personalization, with users able to log in with their individual profiles at the start of a session. The update will extend user profiles to a whole new group of devices where they previously weren’t available. It will also make Netflix’s extremely popular Kids section available on all supported devices as well.

Built From The Ground Up

The whole new experience was built from the ground up, based upon a whole new software platform that Netflix engineered to work better with low-power connected TV devices. Netflix VP of product innovation Chris Jaffe told me while demoing the app that the decision was made after Netflix has spent the last several years building apps based on standards like Webkit.

But those standard-based applications ended up being a bit “heavy,” due to components that weren’t core to a TV viewing experience. Determined to get the absolute best performance out of its apps, even on devices with little processing power, Netflix stripped out unnecessary components and built a whole new framework for its apps.

With the new framework, Netflix is building apps that are faster and more responsive. Subscribers on low-powered devices like Roku streaming boxes should see an immediate difference in the speed with which Netflix loads, as well as how smoothly they’ll be able to scroll through and browse different titles.

Videos load ultra-quickly, thanks to the disappearance of the red splash screen that most subscribers have gotten used to seeing over the years, and provide the best quality based on available bandwidth due to adaptive bit-rate streaming.

The new framework also gives Netflix more flexibility in being able to make changes and updates to its apps. Once installed on new devices, the framework also enables the product team to dynamically update the app without having to worry about the firmware schedules of consumer electronics manufacturers.

For the first time, that’s allowed Netflix to roll out a whole new user experience to a number of new devices all at once, rather than having updates staggered based on the needs of its external partners. Devices supporting the new experience at launch will include the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Roku 3, as well as newer Smart TVs and recent Blu-ray players. But more devices supporting the new experience will be added over time.

So there you have it: more visual, more responsive, and built with more flexibility for Netflix’s product team, this update should not only make it easier for subscribers to figure out what they want to watch, but it should drive viewers to watch even more video over time.